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Laxalt-Sandoval flap might signal changing of guard

State Attorney General Adam Laxalt makes a zealous argument for his decision to contradict Gov. Brian Sandoval and pull Nevada into a lawsuit aimed at knocking down new regulations that will restrict development of sage grouse habitat on public lands.

But, at least temporarily, the icy political dance between Sandoval and Laxalt threatens to overshadow the lands-use issue. It’s not the first time the AG has clashed with his client, and with his actions he’s sending an undeniable message that he sees things very differently from his fellow Republican.

By joining the sage grouse lawsuit, some are accusing Laxalt of flipping Sandoval the bird. In a Friday Review-Journal editorial board meeting Laxalt initially downplayed the dust-up and allowed reporters to reach their own skeptical conclusions. Just how pointed was his argument?

“I ran on the importance of federalism, the importance of the attorney general and the state of Nevada working to try to realign this balance of power between the federal government and the state government,” Laxalt said. “And pointed out then, as I do now, that AGs around the country were for the first time fighting back, that the federal government was violating federal law, and sometimes violating our U.S. constitutional system and all the range that goes between those two. And that it was important that we use that litigation tool to make sure the federal government takes the state seriously.”

Sounds like a political declaration of independence, or at least the start of a fiery stump speech. But as he spoke it became clear Laxalt felt an urgency to counter the recent sage grouse compromise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined listing the bird as endangered wasn’t warranted in large part because of the give-and-take between parties representing ranching, mining and environmental interests in the state.

While that doesn’t mean a paralysis of development on public lands, it does mean there are more rules and some larges stretches of the state are about to be set aside for sage grouse habitat.

For Laxalt, that compromise translates into an example of a “federal agency trying to impose a one-size fits all policy or politically driven agenda on a state.” And states that litigate “have a lot more leverage and typically have a lot more to gain from the wrangling that goes back and forth between the federal government and the state.”

Fact is, he planned to litigate this months ago. Surely Sandoval, who expressed “disappointment” in the decision to sue, knew that months ago, too.

After listening to Laxalt assertively address the issue, it was hard not to wonder whether we’re watching no less than a change of the guard — or perhaps a palace coup — in the leadership of Nevada’s Republican Party. Laxalt is fully focused on making a “Nevada first” state’s rights argument that not only promises to thrill conservatives disappointed in Sandoval’s fiscal policies but is music to the ears of Nevada’s legacy business class of miners and ranchers. In other words, he appears to reflect a Laxalt family tradition.

In the end, Laxalt acknowledged what was pretty well-known: He had not met with Sandoval on the issue, and even a “multiple hour” discussion between state Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke and members of the governor’s “senior staff” sounded hastily drawn.

Laxalt looks like a man on a mission. The sage grouse debate is just the latest example.

After all the political posturing and legal preening is done, the dance of the prairie chicken might seem almost quaint.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at 702 383-0295, or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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